Who takes risks in parkour?

 Photo: Andy Day ( www.kiell.com )

Photo: Andy Day (www.kiell.com)

What drives a traceur to break a jump, knowing that if they miss the only thing being broken might be their ankle? What makes some people drive very fast, or smoke, knowing that it raises their chances of dying? Why are some individuals cautious with money, while others gamble away cash they don’t even have?

Lots of research studies over the last twenty years or so have looked at the ways in which our personalities influence our risk-taking behaviours. Psychologists often use five key factors to describe personality: openness (to new experience), conscientiousness (how well we plan and carry things out), extroversion (how much we enjoy being around others), agreeableness (how nice we are) and neuroticism (how much we worry or get angry and upset). These five factors in combination tend to describe most personalities quite well.

However, when it comes to risk-taking, results are inconclusive. Some people who are more neurotic take risks to help regulate their emotions (as an ‘outlet’ for emotion), while other highly neurotic people are too nervous to take many risks at all. It isn’t completely clear which ‘personality types’ take risks. Some research had been done in ‘extreme’ sports, but no-one had ever looked at parkour.

Working with Parkour Generations and the University of Greenwich, I investigated how personality related to risk-taking for traceurs. Nearly 300 traceurs and free-runners completed the survey online, giving us plenty of data to work with. I asked people to complete a questionnaire on those five key personality factors, then tell me about their risk-taking in parkour – both how well they manage mental aspects of the sport including fear and anxiety as well as physical preparation, and how often they take risks when training.

The results were really interesting. Firstly, as you might imagine, younger traceurs, and male traceurs, took more reckless risks than their older, and female counterparts. People who planned things out more (highly conscientious) took fewer risks, while people who were highly neurotic took more risks. So far no big surprises. But when it came to the relationship between managing risks and taking risks, the results were the opposite of what had been found previously in some other studies with high-risk sports.

Traceurs who were able to manage anxiety and prepare for risks actually took fewer reckless risks in their training. This suggests that, as a person becomes more able to manage the mental and physical challenges of parkour, their training becomes safer rather than more risky. Furthermore, this ability to manage challenges – known as ‘self-efficacy’ – was highly correlated with the amount of time spent practicing parkour.

Put simply: as you train more, over time your ability to manage parkour’s mental and physical challenges increases. Your training then becomes safer because you take fewer reckless risks. This points the way clearly towards structured training, a disciplined approach and the mental side of parkour – all of which are emphasised in the Parkour Generations training model.

It also raises some interesting questions to be investigated in the future. For example, how do people manage their anxiety on a personal level – what techniques and strategies to they use? Do traceurs see a clear difference between reckless and calculated risk-taking? And what are the most effective training strategies to promote traceurs’ abilities to deal with the mental and physical challenges of the discipline?

We’re only just beginning to understand the psychology of parkour – and there’s loads more research out there to be done.


This article is based on the paper: Merritt, C. J., & Tharp, I. J. (2013). Personality, self-efficacy and risk-taking in parkour (free-running). Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14, 608-611. The full article can be found using the following link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2013.03.001 (though you may not be able to view the whole document - please email me if you would like a copy using link on About page)